Coastal heritage


Coastal Heritage

An introduction to the history of the Sefton Coast

Early settlement would have occurred in an environment very different to today's landscape. It is likely that what dunes did exist formed barriers with lagoons behind them. The coast throughout Mesolithic, Neolithic, bronze age and iron age times was constantly changing with probably at least four transgressions and retreats of the coast. This article looks at more recent history and on the landscape that we see today. How did it form, how has it changed and how have we changed it.

There have probably been two major periods of dune building on the Sefton Coast. In the Netherlands old dunes and new dunes have been identified. The older dunes were formed prior to Roman times and subsequently were much eroded. On the Sefton Coast the present dune system probably began to form about 800-900AD in a period of rising sea-levels. High, actively mobile dune systems are often a reflection of erosion pushing the sand into high mounds.

Perhaps the first settlers we should think about seriously are the Scandinavians from 850AD onwards. Formby, Ainsdale, Birkdale and Ravenmeols are all of Scandinavian origin. There is evidence to suggest that the two cultures, Anglo Saxon and Scandinavian, mingled. By Domesday times both cultures coexisted.

However, it is the Anglo-Saxon system of local government which created the townships that are probably the oldest element of today's landscape. The coastal territories formed strips so that they included sea, dunes and moss and it is this link which allowed communities to lead a varied existence and undertake a range of farming methods. The general picture is of a well-developed farming system.

The history over the next few hundred years is dominated by cultural parameters. The church was an important level of organisation and in the 12th century monastic houses became powerful landowners. The granges at Ainsdale, Ravenmeols and Altmouth were established by the Cistercians, who were renowned sheep farmers.

Evidence confirms the existence of settlement, or at least territories at Ainsdale, Argarmeols, Ravenmeols and Morehouses. Records show that Argarmeols had disappeared by 1346, Ravenmeols possibly earlier and Ainsdale before 1555. These losses probably reflect the continuing influences of climate and sea on the coastal belt. The high sea-levels recorded in the region during the 12th and 13th centuries coincided with a period of deteriorating climate which affected the whole country. There is however no record of inundation of the Sefton coast - probably because the dune barrier was complete.

In the 14th century overpopulation, wars and the black death may all have led to less land management. Increasingly the land was enclosed and put over to grazing. Ownership was consolidated. The Civil War led to several major changes in ownership.

In 1667 Henry Blundell of Ince Blundell and Richard Formby signed an agreement to divide the 'hawes, sandie hills, and coney warrens' of Formby. The Blundells took three-quarters of the land and agreed the boundary at Wicks Lane.

What would the dunes have looked like in these days? In many ways different but also in many ways similar. There were no woodlands of any size and the dune area would have been given over to small fields, grazing and rabbit warrens. There would have been a series of lanes interconnecting farms and leading to the shore.

The dunes probably alternated from periods of relative stability to high and devastating mobility. It would be wrong to think that the communities were living totally at the mercy of the elements (artificial planting of marram has been recorded as early as 1423 in Holland).

The shore would have been a busy place where a series of rights were established. In 1671 Henry Blundell was given a 300 year lease of wreck-of-the-sea at Formby, Birkdale and Ainsdale and the outcome of shipwrecks was often hotly disputed. The situation wasn't helped by a thriving smuggling trade which was carried out with the support and blind eye from the landowners. In 1523 the Isle of Man had declared its independence and soon became a major route for smuggling. The laws against smuggling were severe (£100 fine or six month imprisonment). There is a nice case in the Lancashire Record Office; In 1764 The Customs Officers confiscated 30 casks on Formby beach which on examination contained 128 gallons of rum. A good try was made by Henry Blundell to claim them as wreck but the Customs Officers refused to let him have the casks.

The shore was also used for launching boats, for setting nets, collecting driftwood, shellfish, bait digging and collecting seaweed. Who had what rights is undoubtedly complicated. It is known from Sylvia Harrop's research that for Birkdale fishing stalls were leased and clearly marked so that fishermen knew where they stood. There then seems a grey area in what rights the common people had to make use of the shore. Certainly the Formby Courts Order of 1829 bans most activities.

The beach would also have been a most convenient highway and probably the quickest way to travel between Ainsdale and Formby.

Inland much of the dune area was given over to warrens and this is a subject area which should be further studied. The dunes are in a sense still warrens but in an unmanaged way. Rabbits thrive on sandy soil but equally if left to overpopulate the area they can be devastating. The overgrazing of rabbits has probably led to several incidents of sand-blow. Rabbit populations have increased in the 1990s and, in several areas the intensity of gazing has reduced dune areas to a covering of mosses and, in the woodlands, trees have been ring-barked and killed.

The answer may be to turn the dune area over to organised warrens. No evidence can be found to identify the location of early warrens, but perhaps we do not know what to look for.

The warrens were certainly established by the early 17th century and records exist for Ainsdale warren in 1720s, Great Crosby warren in 1736, and Formby in 1734. This was probably the era of the warreners when the landlords right to free warren was leased out. Parcels of land were leased for the farming of rabbits. Probably the rabbits were kept in by a turf wall and ditch and the warrener would live on site to guard his livelihood. The capture of rabbits was principally by ferret and net. The records of the Formby families warrens have survived. These were probably in Ravenmeols. Records of annual rents are shown below.


These figures perhaps show the increasing value of a well managed warren and the market in rabbits. In Holt's General View of the Agriculture of the County of Lancaster he writes;

'There are some lands along the coast, employed as rabbit warrens, but these animals make excursions into the adjoining lands and commit depredations upon the corn. It is a fact however that neither cows nor sheep will produce so great a profit as rabbits will afford on that land which is suitable for them. Their skins, when in season, are nearly as valuable as their carcass and they are prolific to a proverb.' He also makes the observation. 'A gentleman converted a tract of land into a warren, which answers well'.

Warrens were a problem - escaping rabbits damaging crops but probably more so poaching on a scale to anger the warreners. In 1753 the lessees of the commons, coney-warrens and waste ground of Formby drew up an agreement to prosecute stealers of rabbits. In 1765 an Act of Parliament gave protection to rabbit warrens from poaching.

Rabbit warrens continued to be a major use of the dunes. Again for Formby we can find records of leases.

1808A large area£450

This could reflect the fluctuations in the market for rabbits, but nevertheless large tracks of duneland continue to be referred to as warrens up into the 20th century. When the last warrener earned a living is probably not known. In 1920s rabbits were no more than a pest and hunted almost to local extinction.

Asparagus growing dates back possibly as far as the 16th century and certainly both landowners were involved from the 18th century. Formby was the undisputed centre of the asparagus growing and was a major land-use on the coast by the late 19th century. After 15-20 years the plants and beds become exhausted and are left fallow. Asparagus therefore requires new beds to be opened up. Probably at one time about 150 acres of asparagus were in production. Since the second World War it has declined and today less than 25 acres are in use. The characteristic ridge and furrow remains in the field and helps us to identify former areas.

Other crops grown in the dunes would certainly have included potatoes which do well on sandy soil and are as popular as ever on Scottish, Irish and Scandinavian machair dune grasslands. Seaweed might possibly been collected as a soil conditioner and fertiliser but there was probably not enough on this coast to do much good; alternatively peat may have been used. 'Slutch' , or silt, is a word that crops up with reference to improving the soil, and was especially important for the afforestation work. It is neither known where this material was obtained nor what were its properties.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries there would have been some small woodlands on the coast, probably of alder and birch (but not sea-buckthorn or white poplar) maintained as coppice. In the late 18th century Alder was in fact quite a commercial tree, its timber being used for poles and its bark for dye. Ormskirk was the centre of the dyeing industry.

Interspersed with all this was the constant battle with the sea, wind and sand. In 1720 the coast suffered a great inundation and over 660 acres were flooded. Formby, however, was probably not greatly affected. As well as flooding was the need to keep the dunes under-control. Over-grazing or over-exploitation of the marram for thatching (it is estimated that it took one hectare of marram grass to provide enough material to thatch one cottage), mat-making and fodder could lead to sand-blow and once the spiral of misuse set in there was probably little way of stopping it.

In 1739 it is recorded that the village of Ravenmeols was buried by a sandstorm, never to be found again. Ravenmeols and Formby were not alone in suffering from sandblow. Almost all communities living in dune areas have suffered from sandblow at some point in their history. Within Europe the worst affect area was undoubtedly Jutland (Western Denmark) where giant wandering dunes buried everything in their wake. By the 18th century , two to three centuries of sand-drift had changed many area into large deserts. In Denmark the situation was brought under control after a Sandrift Act was passed in 1792 followed by 60 years of work by communities living within 24 km of the coast. At Skagen only the top of the church is all that survives of the old village. It is now a popular tourist attraction.

Nearer home there are many records from Ireland of similar sand-drift. During the 18th century the Irish coastline was characterised by large areas of barren sand. Most were left to the rabbits, and uncontrolled rabbit grazing was probably a cause of erosion in the first place.

On the Sefton coast there are records as early as 1630 appointing hawslookers to prevent the collection of marram and from 1710 most manorial leases contained clauses compelling tenants to plant grass. Marram grass is traditionally planted by separating healthy plants from an area of vigorous growth and planting the shoots. Leases also made reference to the collection of brushwood within five miles of the coast.

In 1742 an Act was passed for 'the more effectual preventing of the cutting of Star or Bent.' Whilst the responsibility remained that of the tenants overseen by hawslookers control was probably piecemeal and not organised in the Dutch or Danish fashion.

However, in Sefton, towards the end of the 18th century matters became much more organised with the establishment of the Alt Commissioners in 1779. Their first job was to build new floodgates and begin the drainage of the mosses. They then turned their attention to building out the Altcar salient, or Wignalls Bank between 1798 and 1855. Using gorse bundles and marram over 150 acres were reclaimed and rented as grazing although the tenant was glad to get rid of it in 1860 when the Altcar Rifle Range estate was formed.

Similarly the Blundell and Formby estates were successful in building out the dunes at Formby with the enclosing of Massams slack. Large scale co-ordinated dune stabilisation schemes worked. Nevertheless throughout the 19th century tenants had to be reminded about planting.

The next stage in the process of land management was the programme of afforestation which started in the late 19th century. The earliest record of planting is in the 1790s by the Reverend Richard Formby. Catherine Jacson, in Formby Reminiscences, describes the planting around Formby Hall which was well advanced by the early 19th century. But it was almost another 100 years before the major treeplanting project started with experiments by Charles Weld Blundell in 1887 after observing the success of planting at Les Landes on the west coast of France near Bordeaux. Charles spent many years trying to grow maritime pine (and many good specimens remain on the coast) for it was this species which supported the turpentine industry in Les Landes. He also brought back from France the idea of oyster farming ( the now blackened shells can still be found on the beach) and perhaps also different varieties of asparagus.

Les Landes was of great interest to coastal landowners in Europe in the 19th century. It showed how profit could be made from apparently poor conditions. In 1822, for example, the first experiments in dune afforestation in Ireland were started by Lord Palmerston after his visit to France.

From 1893-94 both Charles Weld-Blundell and Jonathon Formby started large scale planting. Sea buckthorn was introduced to protect the young plantations; it had the added bonus of deterring trespassers. There were many setbacks to the early plantations through poor technique, disease, fire (sometimes by sparks from the railway ) and depredations of rabbits. In the early 20th century the dunes were virtually closed off as warrens, fields and plantations. The Victoria County History records almost no access at Formby and none at Ainsdale. 'Game' was the reason for no access.

The 20th century probably saw the fastest change in the landscape of any century and, towards the end of the century, the main issue was one of balance; how to retain all the elements of the landscape, historical and modern, how to predict and make allowances for future pressures and how to make room for peoples' use of the coast, for employment, active recreation and enrichment.

The 20th century began with growing development pressures, and, with little value in the land, with the break-up of the former estates. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the coming of the railway and with it new opportunities for development such as Ainsdale-on-Sea and Formby-on-Sea. Neither development reached their full potential and little now remains at Formby except for Seabank House and the promenade now virtually buried in the sandhills. Had all the possible developments along the Sefton coast in the 20th century succeeded there would be as little left of this coast as can be found on the Fylde coast today.

The growth of golf as a major landuse on the coast has been well documented by Harry Foster in Links along the Line. Golf courses occupy 25 per cent of the total remaining dune area and, on average, the playing area of each course only takes up 25 per cent of the course. This leaves about 375 hectares of high quality dune and dune heath habitat in the golfing areas. Courses such as West Lancashire, Formby, the former Freshfield course, the former Blundells Hill golf course, Southport and Ainsdale and parts of Hillside were all constructed on the lower, undulating dunes to the rear of the main ridge of high dunes. Royal Birkdale had to move to its current location (it was not the preferred choice) and Harry Foster describes the tremendous amount of work that had to go into the draining of the area.

Sand extraction at one time was a major industrial activity at many sites along the coast. Suprisingly, the history of sand winning is poorly recorded and in danger of being lost completely. This is because in the early days extraction took place without planning permission ( planning controls were introduced after the second World War) and local firms, such as Woodwards, have closed down, and records have probably been lost. Sand extraction has created much of todays landscape, and probably confuses many geography students studying dune formation!

The main areas were Cabin Hill, the dunes at the bottom of Range Lane, dunes north of Lifeboat Road, the Ravenmeols dunes seaward of the caravan park, frontal dunes in Ravenmeols, Ainsdale and Birkdale and the removal of Little Balls Hill, Ainsdale. So much sand was taken from the Formby dunes that in the 1950s grave concern was raised about the weakening of the sea defences. R. K. Gresswell, the eminent coastal geomorphologist and adviser to the Council, likened it to a battle, where the rear troops were being taken away. Sand extraction at Formby ceased with the enactment of Coast Protection Orders and, after some years at Ainsdale moved to its current location north of Southport, winning sand from the Horsebank.

Military use of the coast is well recorded for some areas, for example Woodvale aerodrome, but the more general effect of war and military activity on coastal land-use, access and the woodlands is less well documented. Recently there has been some interest in Operation Starfish, the system of decoys to lure German bombers away from Liverpool. After the second World War there was interest from the military authorities in remaining at Harrington Barracks and using much of the coast for military training but, in the 1960s, the area was developed as the Harrington Road estate.

Another activity, not yet fully recorded, was the tipping of denatured tobacco waste in disused asparagus fields south of Victoria Road. An application was made in the early 1970s to continue tipping but, it appears that for other reasons, the production of this waste material ceased. Today cliffs of nicotine waste can be seen from the beach.

Potentially the most damaging of all 20th century activities was the rapid growth in recreation pressure and the demand for car-parking areas, caravan parks and holiday chalets. Not only was dune land lost to recreational developments but the sheer volume of visitors destabilised parts of the dune system, particularly at access points such as Victoria Road, Lifeboat Road and Shore Road.

Victoria Road, 1972.

The establishment of the Sefton Coast Management Scheme in 1978 was an opportunity to restore much of the damage caused by uncontrolled recreation pressure and the general lack of management. From 1977 to the mid-1980s a network of access points, car parks and paths were established at Formby Point, by Sefton Council and the National Trust, and these have successfully controlled the pressure.

Article by John Houston.